Archives For Words and Rabble

There’s a fair bit of talk these days about being a prophet, about speaking truth to power. We need these bold, arresting voices. We always have. However, the true prophets are not chest-thumpers; they do not merely play one side against the other. True prophets are nearly impossible to label, at least once the labels become a brand, a marker, the way of expressing who’s in and who’s out. True prophets seem to upset everybody, even the ones who claim them as their own. True prophets insist on the dignity of everybody, even the ones least deserving of such protection. The true prophets I’ve encountered exhibit steely courage mixed with an unnerving gentleness. It’s a rare thing indeed.

The Methodist preacher Will Willimon remembers a Sunday evening sitting in his dorm room at Wofford College when a friend burst through his door. “Hey, give me a cigarette,” his friend said, breathless. “I’ve got to tell you about an unbelievable experience.” These two white boys had marched alongside one another during civil rights actions in South Carolina, and that weekend, this fellow in need of a smoke had flown to DC for a rally.

He recounted how when he boarded the plane for the flight back to Greenville, he buckled into his seat and looked across the aisle and his stomach turned a slight somersault when he realized he was seated next to Martin Luther King, Jr. King looked dog-tired, and while the young man tried to muster his courage and wrest some words out of his mouth, King fell asleep. But Willimon’s friend kept watching King, hoping he would wake so he could speak to him.

Finally, after the pilot indicated they’d be landing soon, King stirred. The fellow pounced, immediately leaned over and introduced himself. “Dr. King, what an honor it is to be on this plane with you, and I so admire your work. I’ve tried to be active in the Civil Right movement in South Carolina.” King thanked the man, but Willimon’s friend was not finished. He had a confession to make. “But Dr. King, my family in South Carolina is so racist and segregationist. I’ve tried to talk with them, tried to reason with them. My father and I are not even speaking. I didn’t even go home over Christmas because I didn’t want to have another angry encounter with my father. He is so backward, so racist…”

Dr. King didn’t let the fellow finish. He lunged over the aisle, grabbed his arm with a fierceness and looked him in the eye. “You gotta love your daddy,” King insisted. Then, King sunk back into his seat and closed his eyes until the wheels hit the tarmac.

Willimon’s friend finished the story, and the two of them sat quietly, a smoky haze hanging over them. Then one of them broke the silence: “You know, he really is a prophet.”

The exit out of The Abbey, up to our house

Miska and I recently took a rambling stroll outside our old cottage, these whimsical gardens Mr. Cloud first envisioned in the 30’s, the gardens lovingly tended and expanded by those who’ve called this home in the ensuring decades, the same ground we’re only beginning to know and love and tend to ourselves. We noted how the dogwoods and azaleas are receding, tipping their hat as if bidding adieu to the tulips who’ve exhausted their glory, shooting stars blazing out in a blast of Spring brilliance. On cue, the next players have stepped up to center stage, and one of our favorites for this act in the play is the peonies. Miska had checked the peonies’ tight pods only that morning, waiting for them to open their heart to the world. And there they were, mere hours later, offering their pink and white splendor.

These are the things we only see if we take that rambling stroll, or peer attentively out our back windows. If you want to feel their pleasure with us, you’ll have to park your car and walk through our rickety back gate (one of the reasons we bought this house), maybe even ring our rusty bell to let us know of your arrival. You can’t catch a glimpse of these wonders while motoring past at 35 mph. These beauties are not, as the realtors say, curb appeal. To get to this goodness, you must enter into the quiet and hidden place.

Our gardens are part of Mr. Cloud’s orginal 2 acres. Our next-door neighbors hold the deed to the bulk of the property, but we have the good fortune to be their friends as we continue to treat the property with its orginal spirit: no overbearing fence, no boundary markers. We all enjoy the whole marvelous expanse.

On Saturday, Ben (our next door neighbor) and Dan (our down the street neighbor) and I found ourselves in a hidden nook, tucked into the back corner of the property where an underground spring feeds into a creek maybe 1/3 mile away. However, for years, Joe Pye weed has choked out the water’s movement, turning the bubbling brook into a goopy marsh. Clearing enough of the runaway flora to let the water free, Ben and Dan began construction of a small bridge, then mapped out the contours needed to allow the reclaimed stream vital flow, then began to figure the rocks they’d need, the angles, the way forward. I manned the wheelbarrow, hauling weeds and debris to the compost pile. This is the sort of job suited for a fellow like me when you’re working on such a project with an architect and an engineer.

To find this little brook, you enter an alcove, a secret hideaway, secluded by a dense circle of azaleas and dogwoods and guarded by towering tulips and regal pines. I’ve come to think of this alcove and the adjacent brook as The Abbey. I don’t get to officially christen the spot, of course, as I’m not the one who’s paying the mortgage for this plot of dirt. But in my heart, it is The Abbey. And like the rest of these joys, you have to take time to find them. You have to go looking. I think that’s the way it is for most of the deep joys in our lives.

Last Wednesday, I sat in the North Oval Room of the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. It’s an auspicious place, one of Thomas Jefferson’s pinnacle achievements now marked as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Jefferson modeled the Rotunda after Rome’s Pantheon, explaining how it was to “represent the authority of nature and the power of reason.” One could never accuse Jefferson of underselling expectations.

I took my spot on one lonely end of a massive boardroom table that seemed to stretch all the way to DC. Around the table sat professors I admire and respect, teachers with serious academic pedigrees. In other words, nothing like me. I was there to defend my PhD dissertation. After course work and languages and a grueling year of comprehensive exams, I’ve spent two years writing about Wendell Berry’s marvelous fiction and how God’s grace shows up in the common, everyday fabric: in that rich Kentucky soil, in those rivers and hills, in those sturdy friendships, in their sorrows, in the life they make in that one unique place. My hope was to better understand Berry’s writing, but just as much, my hope was to better understand my own world and how God shows up in the unique places and people of my life.

There I was, sweating bullets, only to realize that right off the bat I’d made two unfortunate blunders. First, we set my defense date for March 15: the Ides of March. Ominous. Worse, just under the wire, I’d scratched out my heartfelt acknowledgments on the very first page of my dissertation and there, in an ill-advised flourish, I misused the word literally. I mean seriously? – literally? The abuse of this word is the bane of most every middle school grammar teacher in the English-speaking world. I didn’t have tons going for me in this context, but at least I’m supposed to be a writer. I’m supposed to understand elementary vocabulary. I felt like I was rolling into the Rotunda on my tricycle.

Thankfully, the defense went well, and I’m now done. It’s a marvelous feeling.

I’ve asked myself numerous times over the past 5 years why exactly I’ve done this. I’m not entirely sure, but at the most basic I did it because I wanted to and because Miska saw something important here as well. I remember the day when Miska, after years of batting around the crazy idea with me, said, “Winn, I think you have to do this.” That was the lynchpin.

Miska’s my best friend, my partner, the one I trust the most. Last Wednesday, on the other end of that long table, Miska sat there, observing, smiling. Every once in a while, I still hear people talk about the “self-made man.” That’s ridiculous.

 

Our house was built in 1937, and before we purchased our cottage last year, we knew the original cedar shake siding, now brittle and moldy-black, would need to be replaced. Along whole swaths, the siding is thin as onion skin and in scattered spots the woodpeckers have rap-a-tap-tapped right through, leaving a series of circles, like it’s half of a tic-tac-toe board waiting for the X’s. I soon learned that cedar siding was one of the most expensive and labor-intensive options, so I went in search of alternatives. We considered clapboard and board and batten — I even took a very short look at several cedar knockoffs (no thanks).

Knowing my dispositional inability to stroke a check without pressing for every conceivable way to cut the numbers, Miska allowed me my necessary time to roam and research. However, she just kept saying, “You know, Winn, cedar is part of this house’s character. It’s what belongs here.” I nodded politely as I showed her numerous Google images of lovely homes with all kinds of lovely siding. She appreciated each option, but repeatedly reminded me that homes, like all beautiful and sturdy things, have their own soul, a character. You have to pay attention to where you are. I heard her, even as I kept searching, kept finagling, kept downloading Google images for her to view.

As you must already know, we’re now replacing our weather-whipped siding with new cedar, culled by our neighbors to the North from their Canadian forest. Several friends who know what they are talking about encouraged us to stain the siding before installing, so Seth and I have set up in the back yard, dipping shingles in 5 gallon buckets of mocha colored oil, brushing and stacking. We haven’t done all the staining, and I won’t be doing any of the installing, but it’s felt good to participate in the restoration of this old place, to know we’re contributing to our home.

Frank, our carpenter extraordinaire, has finished one stretch. And it’s absolutely true. Cedar belongs here. It’s part of the soul of this place. It’s wonderful.

Every home, every person, every street and village, every borough, every family, every marriage and friendship and church, has a unique soul, a unique identity. And we must honor this marvelous particularity. We do great damage when we assume we can stuff everything into one basket, give it a common name, draw broad-stroke conclusions and assign some generic fix or plan for marching efficiently on. We do great damage when we compare one unique person to another unique person. There’s all kinds of beauty in the world; we want to honor each and every one.

Dear John,

Out running this morning, I sighted two big-breasted cardinals, blazing red. I wonder what it would be like to have to live up such a brazen coat of feathers? It’s not like you could ever hide or blend into the crowd. I imagine that sometimes it’s a burden, but also gives them their strut. I think all of us need a little strut.

It’s interesting you mentioned the Carver story – I just bought my first collection of Carver stories. I was surprised to find I had a hard time getting into it, but I’m sure I’ll give it another crack. I love that image of you and your crackly Baptist knees kneeling for the ashes, with Easter burning in your eyes. Whatever else happens to us, whatever sorrows we experience, whatever fears, whatever blow to our hopes or passions, that Easter burning — that hope of life breaking loose — is what keeps our heart thumping and our eyes watchful. Truth is though that every year, come January and February, that fire dwindles. I need to remember the story again. I need to be pulled out of myself. I need God. I guess that’s why we keep showing up, isn’t it? 

You know moments like Ash Wednesday get, for me, at the heart of what it is I think I’m supposed to be doing as a pastor. I stopped going to pastor’s conferences long ago and haven’t read many pastors books in quite a while. Most of the time, running into all that feels like trying to read Swahili. But standing in front of a line of friends, putting my finger on the forehead of a person I love, looking them in the eye, marking them with the cross, reminding us both of our mortality and our need for mercy and assuring us both that God’s love will carry us even through death — that calls something deep out of me. 

Ken’s dad died Saturday night, I’m not sure if you heard yet or not. I felt that one, returning to my own mother’s death. I hate death. I hate the separation. It makes me nervous sometimes when I think of the future we don’t exactly understand. I believe that our future is bound up in God’s love, and most days that’s enough for me. But I’m a man of dust and there are days when I crave more certainty about how this love I have for Miska, for Wyatt and Seth, for my friends, for this splendid world will continue. I want to have more clarity for exactly how none of it’s lost and how it goes on forever. But I find that God rarely considers that brand of certainty a high priority. I wish God would ask me my opinion on such things every once in a while.   

With you, I’m disappointed we haven’t found a home for publishing our letters yet, but I’m glad we keep writing. I’m glad it’s about friendship most of all. And sooner or later, when the time’s right, we’ll fling our stuff into the wide world, especially the other letters, the ones that otherwise won’t see the light of day. Until then we’ll work on getting Jubilee out there. I’m eager for March 22nd. I’m eager to get my hands on your finished volume. I need more Blase poetry in my life. 

 

Your Friend,
Winn

In the midst of vexing troubles, we encounter an invitation to nurture a persistent steadiness, an unflinching commitment to stick with a conviction or just cause that expands our life and calls us forward with joyful (while dogged) faithfulness and openness (a generosity toward those who are our friends as well as toward those who are not so much our friends). And in the midst of these same troubles, we encounter a temptation to feed an always-on-the-prowl fixation that, while wrapped in righteous rhetoric, camouflages a fearful heart, an angry or reactionary vengeance, a restless perfectionism, an inability to sit with ambiguities long enough to grapple with the long demands of love or the cost of our absolutist posture.

These two ways of being in the world need to be distinguished. The former is the fruit of a wide and hopeful vision. The second is an exhausting failure of our imagination, a signal we have not yet been undone by that unbounded provocateur: mercy.

It’s not even Valentine’s Day for crying out loud, and yet the daffodils scattered across our front yard are punching their way out of the cold, hard dirt, reaching up toward the sunshine. This resurrection is an even more rigorous task than usual for these flimsy green shoots because the mammoth Ash we had to bring low refused to go quietly and left in its wake piles of split logs, mulch ground from the small branches and a towering pile of shavings from the mother of all stumps we had to grind out of the earth if we ever wanted to have another tree make its home here again. Yesterday, a fellow moved a truckload of wood, and underneath crouched those defiant, dainty daffodils, bits of green hanging on for dear life, nearly flattened to the ground, but pushing forward slivers of yellow and white. What’s a couple tons of wood to a tough ol’ daffodil?

They’ve got spunk, these early-bird jonquils. After all this effort, they’re out there basking in the warm rays, all the while daring Old Man Winter to bring his worst. Surely somewhere in the flora’s biological memory, it knows the warmth is a ruse, that we’re not done with the serious cold snaps. Yet there they are, risk-takers with a flair. If these daffodils could make their way to Vegas, there’d be a crowd around their blackjack table for sure. They might lose every dime to their name, but they’d go down in a blaze of fury and glory.

Such beauty and tenderness, such courage and tenacity. I hope they make it through the coming weeks. But if they don’t, I will be grateful for their burn-in-the-wind life.

 

I wonder if, in all our bluster and saber-rattling and amid all our work to make ourselves safe, we’ve forgotten one of those most essential things: to be human, to honor this wonder of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we have made safe will be a world worth being safe in at all? I wonder if the ones we harm (or maybe worse: never even acknowledge) all the while fortifiying this mythical cocoon will ever haunt us when we are old and still breathing and still clinging to our shrinking life? There are far worse things than putting our home and life at risk. Didn’t our revolutionary patriots tell us as much? There are far worse things than laying our life down for another. Didn’t Jesus instruct us along these lines?

And I also have to ask if, in the ways we wield our incredulity or rage or our principled opposition, if we need to take particular care not to forget one of the most essential things: to be human, to honor the marvelously distressing fact of our shared life, how we are joined to one another. I wonder if the world we win, if we do so by dehumanizing another, will be a world worth having once we’ve won? Will it be a world we’re proud to hand our children, a world worthy of the hopes and ideals we vigorously defend?

I spent a good portion of my Saturday splitting wood. My friend Tom let me use his beefy, old hydraulic splitter which is a good thing because I’m working with massive sections of trunk from this mammoth ash, and these pieces are big ol’ mothers. Of course, once they get to manageable size, the fun starts because there’s nothing like the thrill of splitting a log with one great swing of the axe. Seth and I decided to name our axe Big Bertha or maybe The Grim Reaper.

However, as I was rolling those gargantuan slices of trunk and heaving them onto the splitter, I remembered the advice from my high school football coach during weightlifting: “Lift with your legs, not your back.” It does make all the difference. Saturday, with my back, I was exerting all kinds of energy and making grotesque facial expressions and grunting noises but was about to snap something I’d rather not snap or blow something out I’d rather keep intact. When I used my legs, there was a sturdiness, an ease even – and also there was a better gauge of my limitations. It’s good to know when to push harder; it’s also good to know when to stop.

This all got me wondering how many things in my life, or in the world around me, I’m trying to lift with my back (my straining, my chaotic energy, my fear, my not-quite-righteous indignation) instead of my legs (my steadiness, my muck-along faith, my reliance on the grace, mercy and love that unnerves most every power or idealogy in this world). I’m not sure, but something tells me that in these days before us, we’re going to be tempted to lift with our back, but we’re really going to need to lift with our legs.

This may seem like a story about football, but it’s really a story about love.

In 2001, Miska and I moved to Clemson, South Carolina, where a little town and a little circle of friends welcomed us and, over the years, became part of the intimate fabric of our lives. I’ve been passionate for college football since I was a boy, but I was unprepared for Clemson. When we arrived, the Tigers’ football program was mediocre, flashes of brilliance overwhelmed by moments of disaster. However, the Clemson faithful captured me. They were generous to the fans of opposing teams, unflinchingly supportive of their school and all sports, had the most massive tailgate parties, were rabid in their enthusiasm (I mean, orange overalls…) and there was something sturdy mixed in with all this that went far deeper than only winning or losing. As Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s coach, says, “It’s all about love.” That says it right. These Clemson people loved their school, their history, the Blue Ridge mountains that surrounded them. And they loved one another. It’s cliche, I know, but the place really is like a big family – and it gets in your bones. So many of our dearest friends were Clemson students or alums, and they exuded a vibrancy, a joy, that was radiant. Like a bee to honey, I couldn’t resist.

I went to a small private college and never had this kind of loyalty or esprit de corps around a university. Once I realized what had happened to me and how, without intending to, I had thrown in my lot with Clemson, I’ve always wished I had attended the school or been a fan since childhood. However, both our boys have this. They were born in Clemson, and when they were only wee tikes I’d carry them atop my shoulders into Death Valley. Seth was all-in orange and purple from the beginning, and after we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, every year for Seth’s birthday, we road trip to a Clemson home game (sometimes Wyatt joins for a second game or the Spring game). Seth’s a man of tradition, and every year, he wants the same routine: pick him up at noon from school with Bodo’s packed for lunch, stop at Zaxby’s in SC for dinner, pre-game lunch at Moe’s on game day, a stop in at Judge Keller’s or the Tiger Sports Shop to look at gear, scream like mad for 3.5 hours inside Memorial Stadium, dinner at Bojangles on the ride home. Obviously, good nutrition is not a priority. Those weekends are about a day on the gridiron, but they’re so much more. It’s a father and a son, sharing a passion, putting miles on the road together. It’s me enacting, year after year, how much I adore this son of mine. I hope he’ll remember, come every fall and even when he’s old, how much he was loved.

So when Clemson stamped their ticket for a trip to the 2016 College Football National Championship, there was pandemonium in our house. I looked at tickets early, but they were astronomical. However, on Saturday night before the game, I saw how ticket prices had plummetted and how redeye flights to Vegas were dirt cheap. So, I woke the boys Sunday morning and told them to pack their bags because we were heading to Phoenix. Their eyes went wide, they jumped out of bed, and the next three days were a joyful, chaotic flurry.  I never imagined being able to actually sit in the stands at a National Championship game, especially cheering on your team. And to surprise my boys with this trip and then sit between them, one of them hanging their arm around my shoulder the entire fourth quarter – that was pure magic. 

After arriving home from Phoenix and hoping that Clemson-lightning would strike twice, I reserved a hotel on the outskirts of Tampa, the sight for the game more than a year away. I snagged a good price, and I knew that come January 2017, rooms would be scarce and prices outrageous. I did this in hopes for one more opportunity to take the boys to see Clemson play for all the marbles, maybe even a chance at redemption since they came up short in the desert. The boys knew we’d try our best to go again; however, this year, ticket prices never came down and as of Saturday night this time, they were hovering around $1200 a piece. I told the boys the chances of finding tickets we could afford were next to nil and that it probably made sense to admit we’d done our best but to call it quits. Seth, ever the faithful one, said, “But dad, we’ve got to at least try. And anyway, I just want the trip and the experience with you.” After clearing the lump in my throat, I loaded up the car.

We left Sunday morning at 6 a.m. and drove through North Carolina where, for more than 2 hours on I-95, we creeped and skidded across sheets of ice. The temperature gauge said 1˚. Every time I thought of turning the car around, I’d look over at Wyatt and Seth, eager, hopeful. We kept pointing South. On Monday, we pulled into the HCC parking lot at Raymond James Stadium and over the next 3.5 hours worked the parking lots and sidewalks in search of tickets. The entire time, we saw only 2 genuine tickets (along with a number of scalpers hawking counterfeits), and they were $2,000 each. The boys were troopers, but I’ll be honest, I was struggling. I wanted so badly to at least get those boys in, at least get Seth in.

About an hour before kickoff, when things were looking grim, we made our way over to the one merchandise tent we could find because Seth had decided that if he couldn’t get inside, he at least wanted to get one of the Clemson National Championship scarves. Of course, the scarves were all sold out. Are you freaking kidding me? Maybe this is the place where I’m supposed to say that the trip was epic and we made memories and getting tickets wasn’t really the point. But getting tickets was at least part of the point. The trip was indeed epic, and I’m so glad we gave it a go. But it still smarts, that we were right there, so close, and I couldn’t get them inside.

Finally, as the bands and the announcer warmed up the crowd for the tip off and after it became obvious there were no tickets to be had, we dashed to our car, dialed up the radio and gunned it toward the hotel. We rushed into the Flying J Truck Stop, loading up on pizza, wings, Dr. Pepper, “fruit” snacks and blueberry muffins. We raced to our room and for the next 4 hours raised holy ruckus on the third floor of the Country Inn & Suites. When Deshaun Watson threw that final TD to Hunter Renfrow, we screamed and pounded and ran in circles. Wyatt jumped up and down on the bed like it was a trampoline. My eyes may have been wet.

That night, Wyatt came over to me and laid his hunk of a frame over me, placed his arms around my neck and buried his head into my chest. “Dad, it’s okay that we didn’t get into the game. I just wanted to watch it with you.” So yeah, it’s all about love. It truly is.